Editor’s Note: During this period of social distancing, Student Group Tour magazine will continue to provide ideas for planning educational travel. Many attractions and destinations are closed at this time; please contact them directly for updated information.

It’s been said that all roads lead to Rome. The echoes of the mighty Roman civilization coexist today alongside baroque piazzas and iconic Renaissance art. Rome is a bustling metropolis that must be walked through, listened to and tasted.

Michael McLaughlin in Rome
Michael McLaughlin outside St. Peter’s Basilica
Credit: Austin Prep

Rome is also home to the world’s smallest sovereign state: Vatican City. For choral ensembles, few opportunities can compare with performing in this special place.

Last year, my students had the opportunity to experience a true Roman holiday and sing in one of the world’s most storied stages.

Ancient Rome

In December 2019, the Austin Preparatory School Choir left our Reading, Massachusetts, campus bound for Italy. I’m the head of the middle school and oversee the student body’s international travel opportunities. The choir was invited to participate in the 6th Annual Youth and Adult Choir Festival: Christmas Season in the Vatican, organized under the patronage of the Foundation for Sacred Music and Art.

“The aim of this festival is to gather choirs of young and adult voices together to encourage musical excellence and to promote the unifying power of music, which improves contacts among cultures, traditions and people,” said Dr. Hans-Albert Courtial, founder and president of the Foundation for Sacred Music and Art.

As we stepped off our plane, students were filled with excitement about our week in Rome and were likewise exhausted by the flight. To help combat jet lag, we spent the morning with two local city guides who provided an informative walk of ancient Rome.

The Roman Forum was the center of life in the capital. It was home to temples, palaces and government buildings. Merchants from across the empire came here to conduct commerce.

Roman Forum Rome
Roman Forum
Credit: Austin Prep

From our vantage point, we looked down onto the archeological site and heard about the funeral of Julius Caesar, the priestesses of the Temple of Vesta and the ceremonial columns and triumphal arches celebrating Roman conquests. Latin students chimed in with information about mythology and culture and were eager to translate some of the inscriptions visible on the ruins.

Towering over the Forum, the Colosseum seized students’ imaginations. We learned about how a day’s entertainment was organized to showcase gladiators and create a spectacle for the masses.

The Colosseum was also an engineering marvel. Elevators and staging areas are still visible under the arena floor. The infrastructure for the venue’s retractable awning, its numbered entrances and tiered seating helped students appreciate the sophistication and planning of this classical civilization.

St. Peter’s Square

As the bells of St. Peter’s pealed, signifying the end of evening prayer on New Year’s Eve, students heard the beat of drums and the precise cadence of soldiers’ boots marching across St. Peter’s Square. The resplendent purple and gold uniforms and red-plumed helmets of the Swiss Guard precipitated the arrival of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis Rome
Pope Francis greets members of the Austin Prep choir, St. Peter’s Square, Rome
Credit: Michael McLaughlin

Moments later, a figure dressed in pure white silk walked into the piazza. Pope Francis had arrived! The Pope processed to the Nativity Crèche to offer a Christmas prayer.

As Pope Francis turned to face the crowd, the Austin Prep choir sang “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The Christmas hymn and the students’ red choir robes attracted the Pope’s attention.

Pope Francis walked to my students to listen to their song. He touched their hands and gestured his welcome. As the Pope shook the hand of one red-headed sixth grader, the student beamed with excitement and exclaimed that she couldn’t wait to share the story with her teachers.

The Pope smiled as the chorus began their second song, “Star of Wonder,” and continued to walk among the delegation. For the Austin Prep pilgrims, greeting the Pope through song was an incredible honor.

Renaissance masterpieces

There is no shortage of artistic masterpieces in Rome, but the most famous are those of Michelangelo.

Private tour, St. Peter’s Basilica
Credit: Michael McLaughlin

Words are scarce to capture the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. While the finger of God inspiring life and faith in Adam is perhaps the most widely known section of the ceiling, it is but a fraction of the art that decorates the space. Overhead, Michelangelo’s masterpiece stretches the length of the chapel. Nine scenes from Genesis dominate the central panels, while the ancestors of Jesus and the prophets of the Classical World and Old Testament fill the lunettes with a riot of color. Facing the altar, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement is another incredible piece with an amazing sense of motion.

On another afternoon, a smaller group of our travelers had the privilege of a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. We felt the enormity of the space in the striking silence: the 20 of us were the sole visitors in the entire church. Vatican guards ushered us into the side chapel where Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece the Pieta is located behind protective glass. Moments later, a guard unlocked a door and ushered us behind the glass to stand even closer to the statue.

The students who shared this experience were awestruck that an artist’s chisel could craft such a realistic and moving portrayal of Mary cradling her crucified son. As a teacher of art history, the opportunity to be so close to this work of art and appreciate the fine detail of Michelangelo’s craftsmanship was a true gift.

The world stage

On New Year’s Day, our choir performed a concert for the people of Rome. The stunning setting for this performance was the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The baroque church celebrates the founder of the Jesuit Order and is famous for its trompe l’oeil ceiling, notably the illusion of a dome over the central crossing.

school chorus
Austin Prep’s middle school choristers prepare to welcome Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
Credit: Michael McLaughlin

For the week prior, posters advertising the performance were hung up throughout Rome. When the doors opened to allow audience members into the church, there was a sizable line extending into the piazza. All told, there were about 800 audience members for the concert — church staff had to put out additional chairs to accommodate the patrons.

The choir performed an hourlong repertoire of sacred music in a number of languages. Joining with two other choirs from the United States, the Austin Prep choristers blended their voices and created beautiful harmonies. A pipe organ accompanied the singing while the church’s cavernous interior offered amazing acoustics. Behind the choir, Andrea Pozzo’s frescoes on the life of St. Ignatius provided a stunning backdrop.

St. Ignatius Basilica Rome
Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rome
Credit: Peter’s Way Tours

Student travel creates unforgettable experiences that neither textbooks nor classroom lessons can impart. Opportunities like the festival allow students to showcase their artistry and similarly be inspired by the great artistic heritage of Rome and the Vatican.

Contact Turismo Roma at turismoroma.it.

Article by Michael McLaughlin